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Cruise, a new one-man play written and performed by Jack Holden, was one of the first productions to open London’s West End this week. The piece takes inspiration from Holden’s experiences whilst volunteering for Switchboard, the LGBT+ helpline, and charts the 1980’s experiences of caller ‘Michael’ as he recounts ‘a tragicomedy with a running time of 8 years’.
The play opens with 22-year-old Jack starting his new position at Switchboard and feeling inadequate to help older queer people with far more life experience than himself. The show feels intimate at first, as Jack confides in the audience directly and delivers quips about his co-workers and the calls he receives. Soon enough, however, Jack receives a call from an older gay man, Michael, who berates him for not knowing what a proper night out looks like. Michael offers up his own ‘greatest night ever’ and the real spectacle begins – taking the audience on a journey of drag queens, (real) Soho club nights, and the countdown that began with a HIV diagnosis.
Holden is a fantastic storyteller, having written a powerful yet humorous piece which he performs entertainingly with ample charisma. His energetic delivery carries the audience through the tale with ease, doing all the heavy lifting as he jumps effortlessly between various characters; each commendably clear cut considering the sheer number of them. Holden uses his voice brilliantly throughout the production, not only for multi-roling, but also within spoken word sections and multiple songs, demonstrating versatile and impressive vocals. A particularly enjoyable section sees him embody a cabaret-style drag performer who, despite no costume changes, he completely sells through a clever campy schtick.
To refer to Cruise as a one-man play is perhaps dismissive of the work of John Elliott, who composed and performs the music within the piece. He is, in fact, the first person we see on stage as he delivers live pre-show guitar and vocals from his permanent platform in the top right of the stage. Elliot’s music is a frequent component of the storytelling and undoubtedly crucial in creating the 80’s clubbing atmosphere. The pair collaborate well throughout and a memorable sequence sees Holden deliver verse, appropriately underscored by Elliot’s beats, recounting the power of the right music at the right time to free your emotions, finally exclaiming: ‘You’re not dirty. Not ashamed. You’re FOUND!’
Cruise joins the hall of queer media set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, quite often dominated by American voices; so it is somewhat refreshing to be faced with the topic a bit closer to home — similar to Russell T Davies recent ‘It’s A Sin’ television series. The play should not be reduced to being an ‘AIDS-drama’ either; it is about celebrating life and community and the 80’s nightlife culture which thrived despite everything else. No moment feels too dark or gratuitous, nor does the humour ever seem insensitive or blasé.
Cruise is an important play for many people, for many reasons, but above all, it is a stunning piece of theatre with a lot of heart. Its impact is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon and — after seeing an entire audience on their feet — this limited run may prove to be just the beginning.
Cruise is playing Duchess Theatre until 13 June 2021. For more information and tickets, see Nimax Theatres online.